Editor’s Note: Ryan Gellert is CEO of Patagonia. The opinions in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Voting is the backbone of democracy, but it has become increasingly difficult to cast a ballot in the United States.
Many Americans, especially low-wage workers and parents with less control over their schedules, have long said that missing work to get to the polls on Election Day is a major obstacle to voting. On top of this, since last year, 18 states have passed 34 laws that make voting harder.
No one should have to choose between earning a paycheck and casting a ballot, particularly at a time when our planet is in crisis and our democracy is increasingly under attack. So while new barriers to voting emerge at the state level, and Congress drags its feet on passing voting reform legislation, business leaders have an important role to play in protecting our democracy.
It’s simple: They should give employees time off to vote.
If we want to be a government truly by and for the people, we need more people to cast a ballot, not fewer. In recent decades, only about 60% of the voting-eligible population has voted during presidential election years, and just 40% during midterm elections. In 2020, voter turnout in the US ranked ninth out of 13 mostly high-income countries. That’s pathetic.
Employers control a large portion of their employees’ time. That’s why Patagonia has been shutting down on Election Day since 2016. We want our employees to have a paid day off and be able to vote without worrying about being late for work. It’s also why we co-founded the campaign Time to Vote, along with other US companies, in 2018. By joining Time to Vote, a company is publicly committing to providing its employees with paid time to cast their ballots. We don’t dictate how much time each company has to provide – this movement is not prescriptive because we know there’s not one fit for every company.
Some states have laws that require employers to provide time off to vote. CEOs of companies in states that don’t, or in states where voting early or by mail is more difficult, have a particular responsibility to help their employees get to the polls. People of color, low-income voters, and people living with disabilities who are less able to wait in long lines at polling places are impacted by restrictive voting laws. This can skew the electorate toward wealthier Americans who tend to have salaried jobs and more flexible schedules. Not only would our democracy be stronger if more people voted, but it would also be more representative.
Companies should also consider encouraging employees to train and volunteer as poll workers, who help ensure voting day is smooth, safe and secure. Nonpartisan poll workers are the mechanics of democracy. They do the unglamorous but necessary work of keeping our election machinery running so Americans can be confident their votes will be counted and their voices heard. And they have never been more important – or under more pressure – than right now, with Covid safety concerns and a national shortage of poll workers.
For the business community to prosper, our government needs to work for everyone, not just those with the most political influence or campaign donations. Low voter participation is a risk we cannot afford this November. So much is at stake, and every working American has the right to make their voice heard.
To my fellow business leaders: Make sure your employees don’t have to choose between voting and earning a paycheck. The strength of our democracy – and our country – depends on it.